Issue #64 August 2023

On The Validity of Normative Life: Habermas’ Discourse Ethics

Emanuel de Witte, "Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft", (ca.1650), [Left] & Hendrick van Vliet, "Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft", (1660), [Right]


Irecently read Habermas’ essay “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification”1placeholder from the collection Moral Consciousness & Communicative Action, and it outlines one of the most compelling accounts of metaethics I have ever read. This essay is an attempt to summarise and defend the overall argument. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from that essay.

The plan is as follows. First, I give a summary of what Habermas means by communicative action. Second, how, for Habermas, one kind of communicative action is the locus of morality. Third, how any instance of this kind of communicative action presupposes a universal principle. Fourth, how this universal principle is the foundation of all morality, and how even the moral sceptic cannot escape this principle of communicative action, lest they also opt out of the distinctive form of normative life that humans engage in, which is virtually impossible. Onto the first.



Habermas thinks that we all engage in something he calls communicative action. Communicative action is a description of how we concretely engage with one another when we are trying to communicate and co-ordinate our lives. As the name suggests, it is a kind of action that we engage in. He describes it as follows:

“I call interactions communicative when the participants coordinate their plans of action consensually, with the agreement reached at any point being evaluated in terms of the intersubjective recognition of validity claims.”

So, to engage in communicative action is to engage in a process of cooperation wherein various validity claims are made. All that is meant by this is that, in engaging in such action, one seeks to rationally motivate the other to think that certain things are such a way, or to think that they should act in such a way. In other words, we engage in communicative action when we are having an argument with someone. Not in the hostile sense, but in the sense that you are trying to convince someone of something. Habermas claims there are three kinds of validity claims in communicative action:

“In cases where agreement is reached through explicit linguistic processes, the actors make three different claims to validity in their speech acts as they come to an agreement with one another about something.”

However, I will only talk about two here, as the third is not relevant for my purposes. They are as follows:

Claims to truth: in such claims our statements purport to say something specific about the world, about “the totality of existing states of affairs.” For example, suppose that I am conversing with someone, and I claim that “there is a mug on the desk”, my claim purports to be about some existing state of affairs, namely, the mug on my desk.

Claims to rightness: in such claims our statements purport to say something about what should be done, or what is good, in some specific situation. He calls these “legitimately ordered interpersonal relations,” but I will not call it that. I will just call them ‘claims to rightness.’ For example, suppose I try to convince you that you should watch the movie Playtime. I am claiming both that “you ought to watch Playtime” and that “Playtime is a good movie.”

In both cases, the way the speaker attempts to convince the hearer of these claims is by adducing reasons for accepting them. For example, I might point out that I had a coffee earlier and remember leaving it on the desk, which is reason to believe that the mug is, in fact, on the desk. In the rightness case, I might point out that Playtime is very funny, and extremely well-choreographed, which, I argue, is reason to accept that you ought to watch it is a valid claim. It is very hard to deny that we do indeed seem to engage in this kind of action. We argue with each other all the time in this sense, and we go it about by giving reasons for our position.

However, sometimes such communication fails. Thus, Habermas distinguishes further between strategic and communicative action. I sum them up as follows:

In strategic action, one actor seeks to influence the behaviour of another not by adducing reasons, but by threat or reward in order to cause the interaction to continue as the first actor desires. This is when someone, instead of relying on reasons to vindicate their claims to validity in communication, exerts their will-to-power over another. For example, one might reject their claims in virtue of some contingent character trait such as gender or race, rather than for some reason (i.e., because there is reason to think their claim is wrong). Another example is an authoritarian government engaging in repression. They are not attempting to convince their subjects to endorse the norms they want them to follow, they are causing them to follow them through the threat of violence. Thus, you do not convince someone in strategic action to adhere to something, you (attempt to) cause them to adhere to something.

In contrast, in communicative action one actor seeks rationally to motivate the another by relying on ‘the binding effect of the content of his speech act.’ That is to say, they adduce reasons that purport to validate the claim to truth or rightness being made to others. For example, this is what it is going when we debate what the right action or actions to take in some situations are, or whether some course of action is rational, or whether some work of art is good or bad. We offer reasons of all different kinds that point towards some course of action. The fact that this kind of action is possible is not due to the intrinsic validity of any particular claims being made, or reasons put forward, but rather by the guarantee that both parties are sincere. They are sincere if they are open to reasons for accepting or rejecting a particular claim and they are open to reasons if they are seeking justification for some course of action. Whether it has to do with moral, rational, or aesthetic choices, the story is the same.

Hopefully this is clear enough, but as an example, we seem to engage in communicative action even in quite trivial debates. For example, when we ask “is a hotdog a sandwich?” and engage in such a debate sincerely, we begin adducing reasons to others for why they should accept one answer rather than another “it has only one piece of bread!”, “there is no full coverage!” etc. Our utterances purport to have some authority over what one ought to think, in this case about hotdogs and how we use our concept of sandwich.



One might assume, and many meta-ethicists have assumed, that there is a structural analogy between claims to truth and what they are about and claims of rightness and what they are “about.” You see this in metaethics because as many think that in order for a moral claim to be true, there must be a moral fact that corresponds to it that makes it true. That is to say, they assume that just as the claim “grass is green” is made true by the fact that grass is green, the claim “murder is wrong” is made true by the (moral) fact that murder is wrong. Analogously, they assume that the rightness of actions (of which a moral claim is one kind) is made right by their adherence to actual norms.

Most standard cognitivists (realist and constructivist) and non-cognitivists agree about this. Cognitivists think that there are moral truths and that they are made true by primitive moral facts, facts about human conventions, or facts about the universal structure of rational humans. Conversely, non-cognitivists think there are no moral truths precisely because there are no moral facts that moral statements refer to (instead there are just attitudes or commitments). Thus, we can see that both agree that for there to be moral truths, there must be moral facts.2placeholder

Habermas is going to claim that we can be cognitivists, that moral judgements can be true or false, in a sense, without claiming that they are true or false because they refer to moral facts, something out there in the world that is independent of human moral reasoning. Instead, he will argue, moral judgements have something analogous to truth that will substitute for truth: they can be either valid or invalid. How can he do this legitimately? And what does it mean? To see this, we must look at the differences between the types of claims being made in communicative action itself.

Something that should be noted before I move on to this is that communicative action and claims to rightness are to be thought of in this context as a kind of first philosophy, at least regarding metaethics and normativity. (Though these are not his words, but mine.) Everything relevant that is going on with regard to normativity (and therefore morality) is going on at the level communicative action, i.e., actual agents arguing about what is right or good in actual, concrete situations. Thus, morality emerges entirely out of sincere argumentation between rational actors engaging in communicative action. And it is a mistake to suppose that it exists prior to that. This means it is not moral judgements in abstract that are true or false, but particular claims to rightness being vindicated in particular argumentative situations, for all involved. Put differently: morality begins with actions, where the only relevant moral judgements or sentences are those expressed in speech acts by actual or potential actors in the context of moral argumentation about what is right or good.

Thus, his metaethics is an attempt to find the first principles of actual moral engagement with one another. It is to find out what we are doing and what we are presupposing when we argue with one another about right and wrong or good and bad, and what it means to accept that some claim about the rightness of some course of action, or regulation of action, is valid. As it turns out, he will argue, what is sought after in normative discourse (validity) is autonomous from what is sought after in factual discourse (truth). Thus, to locate ethics, we must unearth the logic presupposed in normative argumentation and find out what it consists of. In order to get at what is distinctive about normative judgements as opposed to descriptive judgements, we must learn about the difference between truth and rightness.



The key difference between a claim to truth and a claim to rightness, according to Habermas, is as follows: “A moral norm…lays claim to meaning and validity regardless of whether it is promulgated or made use of in a specific way.” What does he mean by this? The basic idea is that a norm can exist without being valid, whereas a fact cannot exist without being true. That is to say, a norm can be accepted or rejected in some situation by the speaker or hearer of that norm, whereas a fact cannot exist and also intelligibly be denied (given it is known to exist). A norm having validity for us does not depend, at the end of the day, on the state of affairs of the world, like a fact does. It depends on something else. Arguments about claims to truth are about whether the fact exists, where disagreement comes from a lack of knowledge. Whereas arguments about claims to rightness are about whether there is sufficient reason to think something rational, right, or good, which is not purely reducible to a lack of knowledge. Consider the following examples.

We cannot utter the statement “iron is magnetic” without also meaning it as a statement that it is the case that iron is magnetic. To utter it is to just mean that it is true. However, we can utter the statement “one ought not murder” without meaning it as a statement that it ‘is the case’ that one ought not murder. How is that possible? We can see this, for example, in considering whether we should consider a hotdog a sandwich. The debate does not depend on some until now undiscovered fact about the chemical composition of hot dogs, but on whether there are good reasons for thinking that we should revise how we use our concept ‘sandwich’ in this situation. There is no fact of the matter about whether we should, in the sense of truth. The debate is a substantive normative one about the validity of such revision. It does not depend on the way the world is, but on normative validation. This means that claims to rightness are directly related whether or not some norm can actually be justified in communicative action, i.e., in rational discourse where two interlocutors sincerely engage in a game of reasons. Whereas the truth of any particular claims to truth are completely unrelated to how this process goes. Iron is magnetic regardless of whether we agree it is. We can see this because arguments about claims to truth end once two interlocutors have the same knowledge about the things claimed, whereas claims to rightness could remain even if they agree on all the facts.

This is not to say of course that the states of affairs of the world will not affect what norms we come to think are valid. More often than not, the reasons we offer for thinking that some claim to rightness is valid will be based on facts about the world. For example, the facts about the choreography in Playtime are what ground my claim that the choreography makes it a movie people ought to see. However, and this is the key point, it would not be unintelligible for someone to dispute that the choreography is sufficient reason to adopt the norm “everyone should watch Playtime” and instead say that people can miss it. It would be unintelligible, on the other hand, for my interlocutor to deny that there is choreography at all.

In his own words, Habermas writes: “Normative claims to validity, then, mediate a mutual dependence of language and the social world that does not exist for the relation of language to the objective world. This interlocking of claims to validity that reside in norms and claims to validity raised in regulative speech acts is also connected with the ambiguous nature of normative validity…the “existence” or social currency of norms says nothing about whether they are valid.” The existence of a fact does.

Hendrick van Vliet, "Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft", (1660), [Detail]


Spelt out like this, a familiar worry of many constructivist, error theorist, and non-cognitivist metaethics arises. If what norms are valid are just the norms that people accept as valid, does that mean any norm that any person whatsoever accepts, is a valid norm? Does that mean that anything goesand that we have no grounds for repudiating others’ norms, assuming they sincerely accept them?

Habermas answers no. He thinks that we must not collapse the distinction between the validity of norms and their mere acceptance, while still having it that validity in some sense depends on our shared action. This is because, he thinks, normative validity is not mere empirical agreement, but cognitive, rational acceptance of the substantive normative authority of some norms over one’s action. This rational acceptance of moral norms is not captured by our mere adherence to them. For example, consider the difference between these two cases.

Often, there are certain laws in society that we disagree with, or think are not right. We might follow them for merely prudential reasons and even ignore them when we can get away with it. In this case, we think such laws do not have normative authority over us. It is something society ‘accepts’, and it is something we often adhere to, but not something we think is valid. On the other hand, consider the norm “one ought not steal”, or “one ought not kill.” All things being equal, such norms have normative validity for us. We take them to have genuine authority over our action, not because others seem to accept such norms, or because we can avoid punishment, but because they are right. Of course, there might be overriding reasons in particular situations to revise such norms (“in such and such situations we ought to steal”), but any reasoning that would get us to override such norms would itself be authoritative too, in a way that the laws considered earlier are not. This cognitive aspect of moral norms, Habermas thinks, cannot be left out of our moral theorising. There is a real phenomenological difference between these two states, and they are what validity and invalidity consist of.

Thus, Habermas wants a kind of morality whose existence depends on our particular form of life as human beings, but whose validity depends not merely on individual or group adherence towards it (empirical assent), but on an actual process of reasoning that secures its validity for all who are involved. The rest of the essay will be an attempt to show how Habermas thinks this is possible through communicative action.



To avoid the charge that anything goes, and to vindicate the cognitive aspect of our moral practice, we now have to say how it is possible that communicative action rules out certain unacceptable norms as invalid. We need a ‘criterion for generalising norms of action.’ Habermas claims that such a criterion is already implicitin communicative action itself, merely in the act of making a claim to rightness, in making a claiming that we have good reason for accepting some norm in an argumentative context. What could such a criterion be?

He argues that communicative action presupposes a principle “conceived as to exclude as invalid any norm that could not meet with the qualified assent of all who are or might be affected by it.” In other words, he is claiming that in the very act of putting forward a claim to rightness, in arguing that we have good reason to accept this or that norm, presupposes a principle that its acceptance is generalisable. By which I mean that any claim ought to apply to everyone involved in the argument, everyone affected by its adherence, and ought to be freely accepted by everyone who reasons through it. There is some plausibility to this. When I claim that Playtime is a great movie for such-and-such reason, I am not merely claiming that it should only be considered a great movie by a select few people. Nor am I merely expressing my personal enthusiasm for it. Rather, I am making a claim that I think anyone who is listening should adopt as valid. I put forward reasons that I think should give authority to my claim, not because I want people to pretend to agree with me or to just nod along, I want them to accept my reasons as validating my claim. This seems to be the case regardless of how badly I make my case, or whether anyone listening is well placed to appreciate my point. It is in this sense that claims to rightness presuppose in principle that their acceptance is generalisable.

The principle therefore specifies a “qualified assent” because it does not presuppose merely the empirical assent of all those who are solicited to accept a norm in communicative action, but instead reasoned assent. If it were merely empirical assent, the distinction that Habermas wants to keep between validity and acceptance collapses, and we would have to accept the laws discussed in the previous section as valid. Rawls makes a similar move in formulating his theory of justice. Rawls asks us to consider a ‘hypothetical contract’, a contract that everyone who is rational would accept in some qualified condition (the original position), in order to get at our deepest moral convictions. By doing this we can shed light on the kind of political organisation that would not merely have empirical assent, but rational validity. However, as we will see, Habermas’ qualification is different, and, I would argue, more compelling.

He calls the principle he claims is presupposed by all claims to rightness in communicative action, Principle (U). He formulates it as follows:

“(U) All affected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests, and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation.”

The idea simply being that a universalizable norm is one that everyone would accept given they consider its consequences and prefer it to some other principle, in some situation, therefore making it valid. There are a couple important things to note about it.

First, it does not regulate the kind of hypothetical moral reasoning Rawls uses where we imagine ourselves in a qualified position and perform the reasoning by ourselves. Rather, it “regulates only argumentation among an actual plurality of participants”. This means “it suggests the perspective of real-life argumentation, in which all affected are admitted as participants.” This is because claims to rightness only emerge when we have to decide what to do in particular situations so that we can co-ordinate and co-operate in joint action. It is not something that is derivable a priori either from reason or from the structure of human beings. It is not an ideal principle like in Kant or Rawls; it is a concrete principle governing the outcome of particular arguments. Thus, what counts for him as qualified assent is merely what norms an actual agent in an actual situation assents to, given they have considered the reasons for and against, and the foreseeable consequences, of its adherence. Depending on the urgency of the situation, this process could be extremely rushed or extremely drawn out.

Second, it does not entail any substantive normative commitments other than that particular claims to rightness are accepted by all individuals actually (or potentially) affected by it. For Kant and Rawls, we can derive the substantive normative commitments we should take on, merely by thinking about what actions or institutions violate their norm of universalizability (the categorical imperative and the principles of justice, respectively). Habermas does not think this is possible. Communicative action, i.e., actual arguments, come first. Thus, norms are derived from considered claims of rightness in concrete, particular situations. This means there is no be all and end all moral system, just particular claims to rightness in particular situations that have a situational validity for those involved or affected. This means judgements that are deontological or utilitarian, for example, only make sense in particular decision contexts, rather than as applied across the board. (Though you could argue for the wide application of such reasoning. Its validity would just depend on whether it is convincing to those around you.) This could involve an entire society engaged in deliberation through institutions, or a group of two or three agents deciding what charity to donate money to.



This is all very abstract. Let’s think about how this principle of universalisation applies in a real situation. Suppose you and some friends want to go on holiday for a week and you all sit down to discuss where it would be best for everyone to go. By the end of the discussion, your group intends to settle on a norm of the form “we ought to go to X for our holiday”, where that norm is valid (authoritative) for everyone. Let’s go through principle (U) piece by piece.

Everyone that is immediately affected is those going on the holiday.3placeholder As you begin to rattle off suggestions on where to go (claims to rightness), you consider the consequences and side effects of the decision to go to each place suggested. Wellington is great because there is a concert on that everyone wants to see, but the weather is not very good. Auckland is great because there is the maritime museum, but it is much harder to get around. You also consider the satisfaction of the individual interests and preferences of those involved. Martinborough is great if you like wine because of all the local vineyards you can walk to, but if one of you really hates wine, that is good reason to reconsider going. Or maybe they are happy to sacrifice their preferences because they know how much the others love wine. Maybe everyone really wants to go to Great Barrier Island, but one person is deathly afraid of boats and flying. You surely can’t go there. Others are indifferent. And so on, and so on. Every time you propose a place, that is to say, make a claim of rightness of the form “we ought to go to X for our holiday”, you all go on assessing the reasons for and against going to different places. What reasons are offered always have to do with the qualities of the places and how they interact with preferences of the individuals affected.

Given a finite amount of time, your group must come to a decision. If you engaged in the discussion sincerely and with a view to coming to some agreement by convincing others or being convinced, as willing to forgo your own mere preferences in the face of good reasons, then the group will have come to decide on that place whose consequences seem the best to everyone, given everyone’s interests. Each person will then adopt the norm that you agree on, and each person takes that norm to be authoritative, as legitimately governing their action. This is what a group decision in such a situation consists of. But this means that some agreement will be arrived at that basically conforms, to the letter, to principle (U). If some decision is reached that ignores, for example, the person who is afraid of flying, then communicative action cannot really have occurred at all, because that person would surely not be convinced of the decision to fly, they would merely be caused to accept it, or just excluded entirely from the trip. That is, they would have suffered the other actors’ use of strategic action.

Thus, we can begin to see, through this example, how sincere communicative action about claims of rightness will generate norms conforming to principle (U). Once some moral argument proceeds far enough (without strategic intervention), an agreement will be reached that satisfies principle (U) because otherwise the argument will not have ended, as there would still be people who have not accepted the outcome. Once agreement is reached, the norm prescribed will be valid for each individual, because they can all see that it is a reasonable norm, given the particular reasons put forward over the course of their discussion, and given the constitution, i.e., the particular interests and perspectives, of their group. In the holiday case, this seems really to be how it works. We reason towards some course of action and come to think it is valid, in spite of the small ways in which we have to compromise on our own preferences. Habermas thinks this generalises to all normative argumentation, and so for all of morality.

Note further that even though the validity of the norm depends on human action, the decision procedure and decision itself is not arbitrary. It is not based on whatever people happen to think, but instead, a process of sincere and reasoned argumentation. It does not collapse the distinction between agreement and validity, while still basing claims to rightness on actual human action, rather than abstract reason or eternal moral truths.

Thus, we have our proposed constraint on the adoption of norms that answers the sceptic’s challenge that anything goes. Habermas sums up the idea as follows:

“From this viewpoint, the categorical imperative needs to be reformulated as follows: ‘Rather than ascribing as valid to all others any maxim that I can will to be a universal law, I must submit my maxim to all others for purposes of discursively testing its claim to universality. The emphasis shifts from what each can will without contradiction to be a general law, to what all can will in agreement to be a universal norm.’ This version of the universality principle does in fact entail the idea of a cooperative process of argumentation.”

“Universality” in this quote does not mean every rational being in abstract, or in some ideal condition, it means every actor actually or potentially involved in some situation. It is universal in the sense that a valid norm is one accepted by all of those actual or potential actors involved with the argument and its consequences.

In sum, the claim being made in this section is as follows. If some claim to rightness is accepted as valid, it will have been enacted in a successful instance of communicative action, which means it will satisfy principle (U). We precisely see this adherence in the holiday example. If some claim is ‘accepted’ by the group affected, but only accepted in the sense that we ‘accept’ laws we do not think are valid, then the norm will have somehow been enforced through the use of strategic action. It will not satisfy principle (U) because it did not convince those involved that the general adherence to that norm is something they ought to accept as being normatively authoritative, but rather only something prudentially authoritative (e.g., because they do not want to ‘go against the group’ or because someone was particularly domineering) or even unconvincing, if no norm was settled upon about where to go. Thus, successful communicative action appears to generate valid norms that conform to (U), and strategic action and unsuccessful communicative action appears to generate norms that do not conform to (U).



We can sum up Habermas’ argument so far as follows. First, we engage in communicative action. Second, one distinctive kind of communicative action is the making of a claim to rightness, which is to claim that some norm is valid in some situation. It is to argue that we should think that some course of action is rational, right, or good. Third, particular claims to rightness are the basis of morality (and normativity in general) because it is only in particular situations where co-operation is desired that moral questions arise, that is, through argumentation about what claims to rightness are valid in what situation. And finally, not just any claim to rightness can be valid, it must satisfy principle (U) for it to be so. Those that do not satisfy it cannot be valid (or can only be valid for some) because they will not be taken by those affected to be valid unless the consequences of its adherence are agreeable to them, which just is what validity consists of: the taking of some norm to be legitimately authoritative over one’s action.

However, at this point, a familiar worry arises. How is this scheme supposed to avoid the sceptical problems raised earlier? We have a formula of universalisation, but why should anyone formulate norms according to it? Even if we grant that instances of communicative action generate norms conforming to principle (U) it does not tell us why we should engage in communicative action, rather than strategic action, in the first place. And if we cannot say why we should engage in communicative action, we cannot answer the sceptical challenge that anything goes, and we cannot say why (U) is genuine test of validity that definitively rules out certain claims to rightness, rather than merely a description of certain instances of shared action. Suppose I make it a norm for myself that I should be cruel to others. Now suppose I give reasons to myself for why I ought to do that, and I find myself convincing. What does waving around this flimsy formalism do to stop me from accepting and acting on such a view, even in cases where those affected would not accept my cruelty as valid for them?

Emanuel de Witte, "Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft", (ca.1650), [Detail]


Here’s where it gets exciting. Habermas is now going to claim that it is impossible to engage in communicative action wherein you put forward a moral claim of rightness and also violate principle (U). That is to say, he will claim that the connection between making a claim to rightness and intending to adhere to principle (U) is not merely apparent, or even regular, but necessary. In a phrase: you cannot make a claim to rightness and violate (U) without contradiction.4placeholder This means that sincerely claiming that you ought to be cruel to others, in situations where (U) is not satisfied, is logically impossible. The only way for such a claim (that is, about cruelty specifically) not to be contradictory would be in cases where everyone affected happens to consent to you adhering to that norm. However, in that case you would just be adhering to principle (U) again.5placeholder

He is therefore arguing for a transcendental argument of the following form:

  1. If you engage in communicative action, then you presuppose the validity of principle (U).
  2. You engage in communicative action (by claiming things like “I ought to be cruel to others”).
  3. Therefore, you presuppose principle (U) (and contradict yourself by claiming such things like “I ought to be cruel to others”).

Or, without his terminology:

  1. If you engage in argument about the moral rightness of anything whatsoever, you presuppose a substantive moral norm common to all moral argument.
  2. You engage in arguments about moral rightness (when you claim things like “I ought to be cruel”).
  3. Therefore, you presuppose a substantive moral norm common to all argument (that contradict such claims).

If this argument works, he can show that we (must) implicitly presuppose a substantive moral constraint on all of our normative claims to rightness, and thus that they are not arbitrary but follow a universal principle of normative discourse. Then it can be shown that anyone who endorses a claim to rightness as valid (such as “I ought to be cruel”) that does not satisfy (U), ends up involving themselves in a performative contradiction.

What is a performative contradiction? The idea is that you are involved in a performative contradiction when you utter some sentence while you are presupposing, some way or other, ~p. For example, take the following speech act:

(p) I do not exist (here and now)

If we accept the premise that someone must exist in order to perform some action, then this statement contradicts an (existential) assumption they are making in acting at all, namely, that

(~p) I do exist (here and now)

Of course, we need not accept the premise that someone must exist in order to perform an action, but you get the idea. Another example is the classic retorsion response to Parmenides’ denial of the reality of change. One only needs to point out that for Parmenides to assert that “change is impossible”, change must be possible. This is because change had to be possible for him to think about the argument, formulate it, and write it down. It is to accuse him of a performative contradiction (and self-refutation in the case of Parmenides). Habermas argues that you fall into a performative contradiction by making a claim to rightness that also violates (U), like that you “ought to be cruel” in some situation where those affected do not consent to that cruelty. However, this will hinge on the plausibility of (1), that if you engage in argument about the moral rightness of anything whatsoever, you are presupposing (U). To this we move.



We now have to ask what it means, and what is assumed, when we engage in communicate action, when we try to convince someone that some claim to rightness is valid. Suppose you are trying to convince someone to accept as valid some norm, for example, that they should contribute some of their income to charity. What is actually going on here?

As already noted, to attempt to convince someone of this is to attempt to get them to consider and freely accept the foreseeable consequences of the general adherence to that norm. You want them to choose to agree with you and you do so by giving them reasons to agree. In the case of the holiday, to convince the group is to get everyone to freely accept the consequences of adhering to a norm that you ought to travel to a particular place, and to take that norm to be authoritative over their future action, i.e., take it be the place where they actually ought to go. In the conversation between two, it is to get your interlocutor to accept as valid a norm that says they should contribute some of their income to charity, to accept it as having some legitimate authority over their future action.

We can see that such action presupposes that they must freely accept the norm because if you were attempting to get people to adhere to the norm without getting them to freely accept it as valid, you would not be engaging in communicative action at all, you would just be engaging in strategic action. In this case you do not care to convince, only to coerce. And if those that you are engaging with you do not freely accept the norm, but ‘accept’ the norm anyway, for some prudential reason, then you have not successfully convinced them of the validity of some claim to rightness, you have coerced them into adhering to it (or led them to trick you into shutting up).

Thus, as soon as you attempt to genuinely convince someone of something, then you are presupposing that this person ought to accept the reasons that you think suggest they ought to accept the norm you are claiming is right, and the general consequences of its adherence. And you are therefore supposing that reasons ought to decide what they should do, not some punishment or reward for its adherence. What is being presupposed here can be formalised more precisely. Every time you attempt to argue that we ought to accept some norm, you are implicitly, or performatively, through your action, presupposing something like the following rules:

  1. Every actor who can also communicate is allowed to take part in the discourse about the validity of some norm.
  2. Every actor is allowed to question every assertion, introduce any new assertion, and express their attitudes and desires.
  3. No speaker may be prevented by coercion (strategic action) from their right to (1) and (2).

These rules are not mere conventions of argument, but presuppositions you must make to even perform the action of putting forward a reason for taking some norm to be valid. However, it may be slightly unclear how we got from putting forward reasons presupposing an attempt to convince, to rules (1) – (3). To see how we get there, lets return again to the holiday discussion.

Suppose I claim that we should go to Taranaki for such-and-such reason. By putting forward reasons to go to Taranaki, I am presupposing (1) because in putting forward a reason for a claim to rightness I am proposing that reasons ought to be the thing that settles the argument about where we should go. This is because it is reasons that are what (genuinely) convince others, which is our aim in such communicative action. But if it is reasons that ought to settle the argument, then we cannot consistently ignore reasons made available to us, no matter their source. This means that any actor can put forward reasons because it does not matter where the reason comes from only that they could be accepted as valid or invalid, and they are deemed relevant to the decision (which requires further reasoning). If you actively prevent someone from having their say, perhaps because you think they might put forward a claim to rightness whose adherence would be worse for you than your own proposal, you contradict your initial commitment to letting claims and reasons settle what norm ought to be taken in valid in this situation.

Claims to rightness also performatively entail (2), because, by putting forward reasons for some claim we are, again, proposing that reasons for claims to rightness are to settle the argument and therefore that claims and reasons rise or fall as against other claims and reasons. But this means that the claims or reasons put forward can be advanced or put forward by anyone, no matter the source.6placeholder Put negatively: if reasons are to determine what norm should be accepted as valid, what could it matter where they come from? By denying that alternative claims to rightness can be put forward or that reasons you had not considered are invalid, just because they come from this or that other person, means you are failing to live up to your initial commitment to settling on a norm according to reasons for or against taking it as valid. Instead, you reveal yourself as attempting to cause people to accept your norm, rather than convincing them, the pretence of your initial claim.

Finally, it also entails (3), because if, in putting forward claims to rightness we presuppose that claims or reasons ought to settle what norms will be valid, then no one has the right to coerce anyone else to not give reasons, or to not question their claims to rightness. This is because, intentionally ruling out the opportunity for competing claims to be heard contradicts your prior commitment to reason settling what norm is valid, expressed through your own attempt at putting forward a claim of rightness for this or that reason. Once again, this is quite abstract, so let’s look at how this plays out in the example.

Suppose I argue that we should go to Taranaki because we can go up mountain and the weather is good. Now suppose Sophie objects that not everyone will want to hike up the mountain, and if we are going to go on a holiday, we ought to find a place with activities of the kind everyone would like. Now suppose I object: “Sophie is a woman, so we can ignore her and her reasons.” By doing this, I engage in a performative contradiction. Here is why.

I put forward a claim to rightness and offer reasons for accepting it. In doing so, I solicit those engaged in the argument with me to accept my claim to rightness as valid. And by putting forward reasons for that claim, I am presupposing, through my action, that reasons ought to settle whether we accept some claim. But this entails that reasons should settle the question of some norm’s validity, regardless of where such reasons come from. However, by excluding Sophie from the discussion arbitrarily, that is, in virtue not of some reason, but of non-rational factors, I contradict my initial commitment that reasons ought to be what counts in favour of adopting a norm about where to go on holiday, and not merely my own preferences. I contradict myself because Sophie’s claims and reasons could be taken by the group to be more valid than mine, and by silencing her, I contradict my own prior commitment to the argumentative rules (1) – (3). Thus, we can see how a tension arises between the very action of putting forward a reason to vindicate some claim of rightness and arbitrarily ruling out other claims or reasons.

Habermas thinks this structure generalises to all claims of rightness, including even large scale, consequential moral decisions. However, to vindicate his claim that communicative action, i.e., sincerely putting forward a claim to rightness, presupposes principle (U), rather than just the pragmatic presuppositions (1) – (3), the connection between them must be brought out.

Emanuel de Witte, "Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft", (ca.1650), [Detail]


Remember, principle (U) is as follows:

(U) All affected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests, and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation.

My claim now is that if you do not violate (1) – (3), which are presupposed in any sincere advancement of a claim to rightness, then (U) is necessarily satisfied. If this is right, then premise (1) of the transcendental argument is vindicated.

To see how this is the case, consider an actual instance of communicative action. Such an episode is always finite. It is not a form of ideal reasoning, but an imperfect form of concrete reasoning that could end without any norm being accepted by all as valid. However, by staking a claim, putting forward reasons for it, and presupposing that anyone else could put forward a competing claim (presuppositions (1) and (2)), you are (tentatively) supposing that your claim is one that everyone ought to freely accept. You presuppose this because you know that anyone else could come in and offer a competing claim or reasons that count against, or override, your claim, yet you propose it anyway. You must think, at least in your current state of knowledge, that your norm ought to be adopted as authoritative against other possible norms that could be accepted instead. If you did not think it was the best claim to rightness, that is, one that everyone should accept, or that someone else had something better, you would not have put it forward in the first place. But if this is right, then any attempt to justify a claim to rightness always seeks to be accepted by everyone, and to be accepted as against any alternatives. But that just is principle (U). The same thing can be seen if we consider the negative case, i.e., a case that fails to adhere to (U).

Take the sceptic from earlier who proposed that they ought to be cruel. Can this person ever validate such a claim, vindicating their objection that anything goes? Well, suppose they start out by saying that “I ought to be cruel because it makes me feel good.” They are making a specific claim to rightness, and by putting forward reasons for it, they are presupposing (1) – (3). But note that it is not sufficient for the validation of a claim to rightness that it be made by the individual in abstract. Only through communicative action with others can a norm take on the cognitive validity distinctive of moral norms. This is because, whether some claim is valid or not does not depend on the mere existence of some desire or preference in an individual, but on the vindication of that claim in a process of argumentation with others. Thus, at best, by themselves, this individual can only claim that they desire to be cruel, which is not sufficient to vindicate their claim that they ought to be cruel.

Suppose someone replies to the sceptic, as is quite likely, that “you should not be cruel because it would mean others would suffer. We ought not to make others suffer because the suffering is bad, and intending to harm others is wrong. Rather, we should be kind to others instead. We should be kind to others because it makes them feel pleasure, which is a good thing, and because it is right, as it respects individuals’ autonomy.” What can the sceptic reply to this person? They have two options. They could either engage in strategic action, or they could engage in further communicative action.

On the one hand, if they engage in strategic action by attempting to silence that person or by going on to be cruel anyway, even though the norm was never genuinely validated in communicative action, then the sceptic contradicts themselves. They begin by putting forward a particular claim to rightness and reasons for accepting it. However, in doing so they presuppose that reasons and competing claims, no matter their source, ought to be the thing that validates some norm. However, in resorting to strategic action, the sceptic contradicts that presupposition, and themselves. There is either an inconsistency in their action, because they purported to be engaging in sincere argumentation but then choose not to be engaged in such action, or their ultimate disregard for justifying their claims to rightness in the first place is revealed. Either way, engaging in strategic action means their claim that they ought to be cruel cannot be validated.

On the other hand, if they engage in further communicative action, they will have to come up with a reply to the other’s argument. However, supposing that these two interlocutors do come to agree on a valid norm (which will not happen in every case), there is only one way that choosing to engage in more communicative action can end. The norm must be reformulated such that the other person accepts its validity by accepting the reasons given for it. However, if this person comes to accept the norm, then they also come to freely accept the consequences and side effects that the general observance of it can be expected to have. But this just means that the only way successful communicative action could end is by reformulating the norm such that it conforms to principle (U), after all. And if this were the case, then the norm would in no way resemble the initial claim that they ought to be cruel, as few would ever accept such a norm unless there is good reason to be cruel in particular circumstances.

Thus, if the sceptic engages in more communicative action, they either end up in a disagreement where the sceptics norm to be cruel is not validated, and indeed no norm is validated, or they end up settling on a norm that their interlocutor can accept which would in no way resemble the initial claim, and which would therefore adhere to (U). In both cases, engaging in communicative action means their claim that they ought to be cruel cannot be validated.



Perhaps it could be replied that the conversation could be occurring between two psychopaths that both desire to be cruel. In this case, you could say that each person validates the others’ desire to be cruel as a desire they ought to have. However, this reply will not do. As soon as such a person is actually cruel to another actor, thereby implicitly endorsing a norm of the form “I should be cruel to this person,” then they owe that actor a justification for that norm. They owe the actor affected by their adoption and enaction of such a norm because presumably they would, given the opportunity, make their own claim to rightness that you ought not be cruel to them. Thus, the very idea of justifying cruelty, or indeed any other action that affects other people, presupposes that those affected by that action freely accept the consequences of the norm that sanctions what affects them, because otherwise it cannot be validated in genuine communicative action.

If the norm cannot be justified to those that adherence to the norm affects, then it cannot have the kind of validity that moral norms have when they are recognised as having general authority over us. But this is just the restatement of the view: namely, that for a norm to be validated it must satisfy principle (U). This means that (U) can act as the test for validity after all, because it successfully rules out those norms that give the “anything goes” objection its force.

Though one could perhaps push the objection further. What if the person didn’t know about the consequences of the adherence to some norm? For example, suppose you have a ‘peeping Tom’ who is watching someone get changed. Suppose they are very stealthy, and the person being watched never finds out. Could a norm sanctioning this be validated? I would answer not.

In the same way that ruling Sophie out of our discussion about holiday locations even though you know (we can infer) that she would have her own claim to rightness and reasons to put forward is a performative contradiction, the peeping Tom also knows (they can infer) that the person they are watching would have their own claims to rightness and reasons that go against the peeping Tom’s validation of their norm sanctioning their behaviour. I can’t see how the situations are much different, both just rely on extremely plausible counterfactuals. Indeed, we can see that our peeping Tom probably even believes such a counterfactual, as it explains why they are being stealthy, and might even constitutes a further reason why they are doing it. Thus, once again, the norm must be freely accepted by all those who it would affect to validated, which is just to say that it must adhere to principle (U).

Thus, to the sceptic who asks: “if the validity of norms depends on the rational acceptance of those norms, what is to stop me from validating norms like ‘I ought to be cruel’ because me and my psychopath friends all agree that we each ought to be cruel?” What stops them from doing this is that objectionable norms are impossible to actually validate, except in highly specific circumstances in which the people who suffer the consequences of their adherence to such norms freely accept the consequences of that norm, in which case we should not even think they are objectionable after all. Through these examples, we can now see how any attempt to put forward a claim to rightness presupposes (1) – (3), which, in turn, is tantamount to presupposing (U), because genuine commitment to them can only produce norms that satisfy it. Thus, (U) is both the general form of valid moral claims and a genuine test for whether some proposed claim to rightness could be validated. Habermas says we can derive a principle, (D), from this, that he calls the “Principle of Discourse Ethics”:

“(D) Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.”

The “(or could meet)” clause captures cases like the peeping Tom and cases of marginalisation through strategic action.



Habermas’ argument could now be summed up as follows. First, we engage in communicative action. Second, one distinctive kind of communicative action is making a claim to rightness, which is to argue (with reasons) that some norm should be valid in some situation. Third, that particular claims to rightness are the basis of morality, because it is only in particular situations that moral questions arise. Fourth, it is impossible to successfully validate a claim to rightness without also satisfying (U), because consistent adherence to the performative presuppositions (1) – (3) involved in making a claim to rightness make it impossible not to. Therefore, it is impossible to make a valid claim to rightness and violate principle (U), because it would result in a performative contradiction. Therefore, the principle of universalisation is the basis of all valid moral claims because it is satisfied in every situation where validation occurs, thereby making it a genuine test of validity for any particular claim in any particular situation.

Thus, for Habermas, this is the sense in which morality can be cognitive (i.e., there be a difference between valid and invalid claims to rightness) in actual human affairs, without saying that the relationship is one of correspondence between judgement and fact or property, and without also collapsing the distinction between validity and mere acceptance, without lapsing into an uncritical relativism. He has it both ways by having it that some moral norm is valid if everyone affected can freely accept the consequences of its adherence, which is the only possible result of sincere communicative action, anyway. This is the foundation of all morality because moral judgements can only be vindicated in communicative action as claims to rightness that are settled on in concrete instances of argumentation.

It should be noted here again that this is not a substantive view about what we should do in every situation. We cannot derive a view about what to value in all situations, or what we should prioritise, or when and where we should prioritise it, merely from this principle. It only says that we can only vindicate our claims to rightness in communicative action, which is to convince everyone affected to freely accept the considered consequences that the observance of that claim could be expected to have for the satisfaction of the interests of each individual. And if we can do it when deciding on where we ought to go on holiday, we can do it when we decide on what we ought to do for, to, or with, others.

Hendrick van Vliet, "Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft", (1660), [Detail]


Perhaps, after all this, the sceptic is still not impressed. Perhaps they wish to rear their ugly head one more time. Someone like Nietzsche certainly would not be impressed. For Nietzsche, we can imagine him saying that communicative action is a front by the actors involved to get what they want or exert their power. In a phrase: there are no transcendental presuppositions of rational discourse, there is only will-to-power. Indeed, in a famous passage from Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes:

“Assuming, finally, that we succeeded in explaining our entire life of drives as the organization and outgrowth of one basic form of will (namely, of the will to power, which is my claim); assuming we could trace all organic functions back to this will to power and find that it even solved the problem of procreation and nutrition (which is a single problem); then we will have earned the right to clearly designate all efficacious force as: will to power. The world seen from inside, the world determined and described with respect to its “intelligible character” – would be just this “will to power” and nothing else. –“7placeholder

In Habermas’ terms, Nietzsche would say that the ‘intelligible character’ of communicative action is an illusion erected by humanity to enslave our wilful strivings. Even though it seems like we engage in communicative action, and that norms come to be valid for us in argumentative contexts, this is just an artifact of human existence we can ignore and transcend. He might even go further: there is often not even the appearance of communicative action, there is just the bald exertion of will over others, and only those that are naïve enough not to see it think that there is a genuine game of reasons happening. Indeed, it is just that: a game. There only is, and always ever was, strategic action.

How serious a threat is this Nietzschean strategy? It amounts basically to this: what if we simply ignore the (supposed) transcendental presuppositions of communicative action? That is to say: what if I (the sceptic) refuse to enter into argument with you, by refusing to make claims to rightness at all, and instead only talk about you. For those who have read Nietzsche, this really seems to be what he does. He rejects rationality entirely as a tool of weakness, as something designed to tame the will-to-power, rather than being something genuinely normatively binding. There is no such thing as ‘normatively binding.’ The kind of validity Habermas thinks we reach in communicative action is just an illusion of human practice. Indeed, even those who try to validate norms such as “I should be cruel to others” foolishly enter themselves into a game they do not really have to play. Instead of attempting to validate such norms of action, the Nietzschean just does them.

What can we say in response to this last-ditch effort of the sceptic to avoid communicative action and the vindication of claims to rightness? What are we to say to the Nietzschean superman, who truly goes beyond good and evil, beyond even claiming that anything is right, wrong, good, or bad? Habermas responds much more elegantly than I could. I therefore quote him at length:

“By refusing to argue, for instance, he cannot, even indirectly, deny that he moves in a shared sociocultural form of life, that he grew up in a web of communicative action, and that he reproduces his life in that web. In a word, the skeptic may reject morality, but he cannot reject the ethical substance (Sittlichkeit) of the life circumstances in which he spends his waking hours, not unless he is willing to take refuge in suicide or serious mental illness. In other words, he cannot extricate himself from the communicative practice of everyday life in which he is continually forced to take a position by responding yes or no. As long as he is still alive at all, a Robinson Crusoe existence through which the skeptic demonstrates mutely and impressively that he has dropped out of communicative action is inconceivable, even as a thought experiment.

As we have seen, in reaching an understanding about something in the world, subjects engaged in communicative action orient themselves to validity claims, including [claims to truth] and [claims to rightness]. This is why there is no form of sociocultural life that is not at least implicitly geared to maintaining communicative action by means of argument, be the actual form of argumentation ever so rudimentary and the institutionalization of discursive consensus building ever so inchoate. Once argumentation is conceived as a special form of rule-governed interaction, it reveals itself to be a reflective form of action oriented toward reaching an understanding. Argumentation derives the pragmatic presuppositions we found at the procedural level from the presuppositions of communicative action. The reciprocities undergirding the mutual recognition of competent subjects are already built into action oriented toward reaching an understanding, the action in which argumentation is rooted. That is why the radical skeptic’s refusal to argue is an empty gesture. No matter how consistent a dropout he may be, he cannot drop out of the communicative practice of everyday life, to the presuppositions of which he remains bound…

…The possibility of choosing between communicative and strategic action exists only abstractly; it exists only for someone who takes the contingent perspective of an individual actor. From the perspective of the lifeworld to which the actor belongs, these modes of action are not matters of free choice…individuals, have a choice between communicative and strategic action only in an abstract sense, i.e., in individual cases. They do not have the option of a long-term absence from contexts of action oriented toward reaching an understanding. That would mean regressing to the monadic isolation of strategic action, or schizophrenia and suicide. In the long run such absence is self-destructive.”

In short, given that the sceptic cannot extricate themselves from the fact that we do share a socio-cultural form of argumentation they can only, at best, sometimes refuse to play the game. They can, at best, violate the universal norm (U) to the extent they can get away with it. But given the structure of our lifeworld, given the way that normative argumentation is weaved into the fabric of our lives, they can hardly get away with it to any great extent. They’ll be imprisoned, have no friends, be deeply unlikable, and so on. To live in such a way is just to live a deeply impoverished life. Indeed, even if you were completely selfish to your core, you are likely better off engaging in this form of life, and better off losing yourself in it, like most of us do, because it is not something that can just be overthrown.

Thus, whether principle (U) is ultimately fictional, or unreal, or not ‘really and truly’ binding in some ultimate metaethical sense, might just be beside the point. It is simply a fact that we adhere to it in practice; a fact that norms really come to be validated or invalidated for us in experience; a fact that our socio-cultural lifeworld is structured such that communicative action, and thus reasons, co-ordinate the aims and projects of the individuals around us, in a way that they generally agree to adhere to the consequences of the adherence to norms that make sense, in certain situations. And the fact that it our life is such a way, may just be reason enough.

Habermas, of course, does not think that this is mere fiction. He thinks that communicative action and validity in the sense of a norm agreed to by participants in discourse that adheres to principle (U), is the legitimate, cognitive, non-arbitrary, foundation of all morality. Though he does not think he has offered a “proof” for it, or a “proof” for the existence of morality. The sceptic can consistently make the move that Nietzsche makes. The problem is that such a view fails to explain so much: the fact that we sincerely argue about norms by giving reasons, the fact that we eventually take such norms to authoritatively govern our action. If Habermas is right that communicative action is weaved into our lifeworld, and there is very good reason to think it is, there seems to be no reason left to deny it some genuine and authoritative legitimacy. There is good reason to deny that the sceptic’s claim that we can always choose to ignore it, really amounts to anything. Morality just is this process of validation, and it is something we do. That is enough.

Further, if this argument stands, the sceptic is never allowed to claim anything about rightness whatsoever. They simply cannot say something is good or bad in any meaningful way, given they reject the presuppositions of communicative action. But if they reject such presuppositions, they cannot purport to tell us how to live, or what to do, or what is right and good, or valuable. Indeed, given they are not sincere, we can safely ignore them entirely, and go on living. And that we must do. This seems to ensnare Nietzsche’s, and other moral sceptics, more ‘positive’ moments, where they put forward criteria of strength, virtue, or fiction. In such cases they performatively contradict themselves, and we can ignore them. Nothing they could ever say or do could ever be validated, without also submitting themselves to what they so vehemently deny.

Rowan Anderson is a student of philosophy living in Wellington, New Zealand. You can find more of his writings on his blog.

Works Cited

Habermas, Jürgen. “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification.” In Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, 43-115. Translated by Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholson. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil. Translated by Marion Faber. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


Habermas, Jürgen. “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification.” In Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, 43-115. Translated by Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholson. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.


I won’t pretend this captures all of the subtle distinctions that are put forward by or available to metaethicists, this is just how Habermas set up his view to distinguish himself from common assumptions.


Though I should add that you might affect the people where you go, and this would be something that plays into your reasoning. Maybe you want to go somewhere, for example, but people are striking and there is a picket line. This would give you reason not go. This is one of the few qualifications I make of such matters, just note that the process of reasoning can always invoke even far-reaching consequences (in the spatiotemporal sense) as reasons for adopting or rejecting some norm.


If you are familiar with Kant, this will be a similar move to what he says about violations of the categorical imperative.


And we can imagine there being cases in specific contexts where this norm might be valid for all involved.


However, note that the expression of attitudes and desires would be restricted only to those that are affected (in line with [U]), because otherwise their attitudes would fail to count as reasons to determine the validity of adhering to a norm, because it’s consequences would not affect them. For example, we often do not take the feelings of people that are dead to bear on future actions given the consequences of our actions do not affect them (though sometimes we do still care about their preferences). However, two things to note about that. (1) We could be wrong about what consequences would or would not affect people, participants must just do the best they can in the situation. (2) Claims and reasons could still be put forward by those not affected and sometimes we even view this as useful at securing validity as it is seen to rule out non-rational factors (e.g. having an ‘impartial’ judge have their say).


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond good & Evil. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1973.


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